Scott Fowler

Playoffs? Charlotte Hornets not deserving so far

Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson drives toward the basket against Brooklyn Nets Brook Lopez, right, during Wednesday night’s loss for the Hornets. Charlotte has lost seven of its past nine games.
Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson drives toward the basket against Brooklyn Nets Brook Lopez, right, during Wednesday night’s loss for the Hornets. Charlotte has lost seven of its past nine games. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte Hornets aren’t out of the playoff race yet, but right now they really don’t deserve to be in it.

At 30-40, these Hornets are 10 games under .500 with less than three weeks to go in the NBA’s regular season. They have lost seven of their last nine games. Their biggest offseason acquisition, Lance Stephenson, has been a bust.

That Charlotte remains in the playoff conversation at all is a watered-down testament to the weakness of the Eastern Conference. They have 12 games left and probably need to go at least 7-5 or 8-4 in those to pass all the teams they need to pass.

But it’s hard to imagine them doing that right now. The schedule gets no easier – starting Friday at Washington and Saturday at home vs. Atlanta. Al Jefferson’s body keeps breaking down. And, worst of all, the chemistry that was obviously there when the Hornets went 43-39 last season is no longer apparent with this group.

What’s keeping the Hornets from winning?

“Ourselves,” Kemba Walker said after Charlotte’s latest loss, a 91-88 home defeat to Brooklyn Wednesday night. “We’re just not making the right plays to win these games. Too many mistakes. We’ve just got to get it together.”

In Wednesday night’s game, Charlotte messed up the third quarter, couldn’t guard the pick and roll against Brook Lopez (34 points) and still had a chance at the end.

But, down by three points with 3.2 seconds left and inbounding the ball under Brooklyn’s basket, Charlotte couldn’t even get off a final shot. Instead, Lopez tipped away Gerald Henderson’s attempted pass, the buzzer sounded and all the fans groaned and went home.

Henderson actually played a great game, scoring 23 points and keeping Charlotte in it for long stretches. But he admitted afterward he should have thrown that pass differently.

“I should have faked,” Henderson said, “but I didn’t know how much time I had left.”

The Hornets are a diminished team from a year ago. Jefferson isn’t as good as he was due to a variety of injuries. Rookies P.J. Hairston and Noah Vonleh don’t play. Josh McRoberts, who glued that Hornets team together a year ago and should have been re-signed, is long gone.

Do I need I go on? OK. Mo Williams was incredible for awhile, but has finally come off that cloud he lived on when he first got to Charlotte. Marvin Williams was paid too much to do what he does.

And Stephenson? Oh, man. He can’t shoot straight – have you noticed 90 percent of the innumerable jumpers he misses are short? – and he exhibits some of the worst body language I’ve ever seen on an NBA court when things go wrong. He hardly ever plays when it counts.

Head coach Steve Clifford isn’t making all the right moves, either. I know Henderson’s pass wasn’t good. But after 69 regular-season games to get it right, surely there’s a better play to run with 3.2 seconds left than that one.

“If we are going to play our way into the playoffs, we’re going to have to earn it,” Clifford said.

That they are. But from the way the Hornets are playing right now, it is far more likely that their regular season will end April 15th at Toronto. And after that they will be watching the playoffs on TV, trying to figure out all the things that went wrong in this lost season.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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